(cross-posted from Columbia College Today, Summer 2014)
Alondra Nelson is a professor of sociology and gender studies, and director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Raised in San Diego, she earned a B.A. in anthropology from UC San Diego and a Ph.D. in American studies from NYU. Her 2011 book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, was recognized with four scholarly awards.
What’s your specialty?
I work at the intersection of the sociology of race and/or ethnicity and the sociology of science. I went to graduate school at a time when a great deal of new scholarship was helping us to better understand how ideas about race (and justifications for racism) were drawn from the biological sciences and medicine — including books like Tuskegee’s Truths by Susan Reverby, which traced the notorious syphilis experiment, a scientific inquiry partly premised on spurious theories about fundamental differences between black bodies and white bodies, and Robert Proctor’s Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, which explored the way that medical research was used for ideological purposes in Hitler’s Germany. This new wave of scholarship highlighted moments in which science and technology were mobilized against marginalized groups. As someone also interested in African-American history, I was struck that a lot of this literature suggested a one-way street. It gave us a picture of race making “from above” — in science and medicine — but offered little insight into how the communities detrimentally impacted by these ideas responded to them.
And that led you to the Black Panthers?
Yes. We often think about the Civil Rights Movement as being about access to schools and to lunch counters but it was also about access to medical care and medical facilities, and to nursing schools and medical education. The Black Panthers emerged in 1966 as an organization that was trying to curb police harassment, and violence and often deadly engagements with police came to be the way that we think most about them. But part of their story is also radical and fairly ambitious health care activism. I wrote about their sickle cell anemia campaign, which best I could discern is the only case of a grassroots genetic screening and counseling program in the United States. I also wrote about their challenge to a planned research center at UCLA that was gathering together researchers interested in studying the idea that there were biological causations for violence. In this instance, the Black Panthers were successful in working with a coalition of other activists, including the NAACP and the National Organization for Women, to block state funding to the center, so it never came to be. What’s interesting about this Black Panther story, surprisingly, is that it’s not a poignant postscript about the damage that was done to vulnerable communities by biomedical experimentation. Rather, it’s a powerful story that says, “we learned about this as it was happening, we understood what the stakes were and what the implications of this research was and we were able to stop it.”
What’s your current project?
I have a book coming out next year called The Social Life of DNA. It started as ethnographic research in 2003 when direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing companies were introduced in the U.S. Given the complicated history of genetic science, I was initially interested in whether these tests were contributing to consumers thinking about themselves in essentialist ways: Are we coming to think about our genes as our destiny, both for our health and for our identity? For me, that was a potentially dangerous thing. But what I found is that people were both more judicious than I would have thought and also more nuanced and sophisticated. What became more interesting was the way that people navigated the different threads of information that can make up one’s identity: the tests, the family stories, the things written in the front of a bible, oral history, even the things you might feel about what you think your ancestry is.
What undergraduate courses do you teach?
A lecture course called “Post-Racial America?” It looks at facets of American life, such as the workforce, mass incarceration, urban and suburban living, the intersection of race and ethnicity with gender and class, and growing populations of people who call themselves multi-racials. As someone who is a post-Civil Rights Movement sociologist, I think many things have gotten better, some things have not changed and some things have gotten worse. So to pose that question every week — post-racial America? — makes students think with complexity about contemporary racial politics in the U.S.
What historical figure would you most like to meet?
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She was a journalist, lay sociologist and an anti-lynching crusader as well as a woman leader working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when there weren’t many well-known women leaders. It’s one thing to take the helm of an organization; it’s another to have unpopular opinions and to be disliked both because you’re operating outside of the realm of normative, polite womanhood and outside of the realm of status quo politics. And at the same time she was a mother, she was a grandmother, she was a wife. Ida B. Wells was able to accomplish things that most of us can only aspire to.
Interview: Alexis Tonti ’11 Arts